The Lantern Festival is a Chinese festival celebrated on the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunar year. It is called Yuanxiao Festival in Chinese. Yuan means the start or beginning. Xiao means night. This is the night of the first full moon in a year. In 2021, this day falls on February 26th.
People also call this day “semi new year” because it marks the end of the series of celebrations and marches into the life of a new year.
There are some stories about the origins of this festival. There is one account that as early as 180BC, after a long unsettling period of wars, the king finally ended the coup and the country went back to peace. He then declared a new beginning for the whole country. People were so relieved and happy. They felt that the day had such a deep meaning to future and peace. They went into the streets, hung up decorations and lanterns, danced and celebrated together. That was the first full moon of the year. This tradition continued for years and eventually developed into today’s festival.
There is another account that somewhere around 200BC to 200AD, people went into the streets and fields with family and friends on the first full moon of the year. They went with torches to cast the bugs and monsters away. Then the people danced and sang together, wishing for a bountiful harvest and peaceful year. According to tradition, this is the original beginning of the festival.
In history, people have kept the tradition to celebrate in a grand and festive way. During the spring festival the streets and yards are covered with lanterns and decorations colored in red – all signifying hope and joy for the future. Oftentimes after the family dinner, people will go out to the streets while carrying lanterns of different shapes and colors. It’s a festive time for people to do different activities. They may go to the streets to shop for arts and crafts. They may solve riddles displayed on lanterns. They may watch people dance in lion and dragon costumes. And they may watch fireworks, which is a way to finish the series of the new year celebration with a “bam”.
Another iconic tradition for this day is to make and eat sticky rice balls with different fillings. It is called YuanXia (though people in southern China call it TangYuan, which is the similar sounds of reunion or perfect completion). Eating YuanXiao on the first full moon of the year, is a symbol to wish the family to be united, harmonious, happy and flourishing.
In the past couple decades it seems that the celebrations have become simplified, as people have to hurry back from hometowns to work. So nowadays, it’s most common for people to eat YuanXiao together and call other family members.
For Chinese international students, this is a day to connect with family across the ocean. A famous poem from Tang dynasty reflects the feelings they have on this day: “独在异乡为异客，每逢佳节倍思亲”, which says, “to be alone away from home is like being a passenger in a lonely town, every festival makes me homesick even more, as I yearn for the reunion with family so far away”. So for Chinese students, though they are busy with studies, they will likely make a bowl of YuanXiao. It’s a way to share this tradition with their family back at home. By doing so, they may not feel as sad to not have each other nearby.
It is an understatement to say that 2020 was a difficult year, even for Chinese international students. So on this day, we would rather they not feel sad or be alone. We want to provide them with a happy “send off” into the new year with peace and joy. If you know a Chinese student or scholar, invite them to attend the virtual Lantern Festival party on Friday, February 26th. It will be a special time for Chinese students and scholars from across the country to come together to make YuanXiao, solve riddles, chat with friends, and watch student performances. We encourage you to invite your Chinese student or scholar friends to attend this nationwide event. We will recreate the tradition of making YuanXiao together, solve riddles, chat with friends and watch students lead performances. We trust it will be a satisfying start of the new year for all!